You probably remember the scene in The Matrix in which Morpheus explains to Neo the terrible secret: “You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
In the jargon of The Matrix, I’m a blue pill person and believe that I’m in touch with reality. Perhaps I am deluded.
Elon Musk, billionaire co-founder of PayPal, and the boss of Tesla and SpaceX, on the other hand, is definitely a red pill person. Last week he told a conference of geeks in San Francisco that we are probably part of a powerful computer simulation. In fact, he estimates that "There's a one in billions chance that this is base reality”. (See story below.)
Musk is an intelligent man, but I wonder if he understands the ethical implications of the red pill. If we are really marionettes in a super-human intellect’s simulation of reality, nothing much matters. Certainly worrying about right and wrong is a waste of time. Human life doesn’t matter much either, as we are all just blips in a gigantic computer game. There’s not much incentive for social solidarity.
The death of Muhammed Ali at the age of 74 is reminder of the uneasy ethical status of boxing. Only in boxing is the brain the target. Ali’s Parkinson’s disease was probably a result of punishing blows to the head over the course of his career. Gloves probably make the problem worse, as they increase the weight and the force of impact. Headgear may not protect boxers from rotational acceleration.
John Hardy, a neuroscientist at University College London, wrote a couple years ago: “nothing can be more killing of joy than personality changes, violence, substance abuse and dementia. I also think it is demeaning as a society for people to get pleasure out of watching others fight and that we should consign this public spectacle, as we have done public executions, to the dustbin of history.”
What do you think? Should professional boxing be banned? It seems hard to justify a sport which, in the words of Joe Frazier, who beat Ali in the brutal “fight of the century” in 1971, “boxing is the only sport you can get your brain shook, your money took and your name in the undertaker book.”
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Twelve years ago, political scientist Francis Fukuyama described transhumanism as “the world’s most dangerous idea”. In 2004, that sounded a bit daft -- almost no one had ever heard of the idea. For many people it still does, but now transhumanism is going mainstream.
Movies are being made about transhumanist themes; newspapers like the Washington Post are running feature articles on it; and a transhumanist is running for US President. It is indeed dangerous. As Fukuyama said:
The seeming reasonableness of the project, particularly when considered in small increments, is part of its danger. Society is unlikely to fall suddenly under the spell of the transhumanist worldview. But it is very possible that we will nibble at biotechnology's tempting offerings without realizing that they come at a frightful moral cost.
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According to the Oxford experts’ calculations, extinction of the whole human race is reasonably likely. Scientists have suggested that the risk is 0.1% per year, and perhaps as much as 0.2%. While this may not seem worthwhile worrying about, these figures actually imply, says the report, that “an individual would be more than five times as likely to die in an extinction event than a car crash”.
What sort of calamities are we talking about? Collision with an asteroid, the eruption of a super-volcano, extreme climate change, a bio-engineered pandemic, or even a super-intelligent computer declaring war on wetware humanity.
Tiny probabilities add up, so that the chance of extinction in the next century is 9.5% -- which is worth worrying about. And of course, a mere global catastrophe, involving the death of a tenth of the population, is far more likely. That is a very startling statistic.
However, even at Oxford they make mistakes. Within days of issuing the Global Catastrophic Risk 2016 report, the experts were eating humble pie. A mathematician reviewed its calculations and concluded that “the Future of Humanity Institute seems very confused re: the future of humanity”. The authors had to give more nuance and context to their most startling statistic. It doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in the ethics of existential risk.
BioEdge was launched in 2001, in the week that President George W. Bush announced his adminstration's policy on human embryonic stem cell research. That fuelled a huge debate about a field of science which very few people had ever heard of, let alone thought deeply about. Ever since we've been chronicling the debates surrounding the ever-expanding empire of bioethics.
As we celebrate our 15th anniversary, we are also promoting a fund-raising drive over the next four weeks. The BioEdge newsletter is free, but it is increasingly expensive to produce. This year we are hoping to raise $15,000.
Although it has been called the world’s most dangerous idea, transhumanism probably provokes more ridicule than fear. Uploading one’s brain onto the internet or talk of thousand-year life spans seems to defy common sense.
Nonetheless, my theory is that transhumanism is the logical outcome of a lot of contemporary bioethical theory. So developments in transhumanism are worth paying attention to.
The biggest story at the moment is the quixotic campaign of the head of the Transhumanist Party, Zoltan Istvan, for president of the United States. He is a philosophy and religious studies graduate of Columbia University and has worked as a journalist for the National Geographic Channel.
Mr Istvan has been running a blog on the Huffington Post for a while about his campaign which aims to make the platform of his party more plausible. In the latest post he defines transhumanism as “the radical field of science that aims to turn humans into, for lack of a better word, gods”. So while transhumanism is resolutely atheistic, it has religious aspirations.
And unlike Richard Dawkins and other militant atheists, Istvan argues that our responsibility is to transcend evolution. He writes: “the human body is a mediocre vessel for our actual possibilities in this material universe. Our biology severely limits us. As a species we are far from finished and therefore unacceptable… Biology is for beasts, not future transhumanists.”
It’s a curious development. While many prominent scientific thinkers want to abolish God and treat man as one beast amongst many, transhumanists want to abolish evolution and recreate God (or gods).
Canada is soon to have legislation permitting euthanasia and assisted suicide, as decreed by its Supreme Court. One issue, however, over which some uncertainty hovers is how much wriggle room should be left for doctors who have ethical objections to the new regime.
One of the country’s most influential bioethicists, Udo Schuklenk, who is also the co-editor of the journal Bioethics, contends that there is no room for conscientious objection in a modern health care system. Doctors have an ethical and legal obligation to provide legal and social useful services like euthanasia. If they don’t like it, they should get another job, just as other people do when they don’t like the boss’s orders.
Interestingly, the writers cite the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes in support of their attack on the rights of conscience. The subject in Hobbes’s Leviathan has no need of an individual conscience, for “the law is the public conscience by which he hath already undertaken to be guided”.
Since Hobbes laid the foundation for the modern totalitarian state, this allusion seems ominous. Yes, there will be problems in trying to accommodate conscientious objectors. But the abolition of conscience leads to problems as well. Wouldn’t Schuklenk’s ethical framework work just as well in Saudi Arabia? If a doctor there refused to amputate the hand of a thief, would he argue that he should to get another job? If he refused to perform female genital mutilation, should he be fired because he has defied the law?
Former Austraiian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who is now 86, has publicly backed euthanasia, even for teenagers. He says that he fears the indignity of "losing his marbles" -- something he is trying to keep at bay with crosswords and suduko. He told euthanasia activist Andrew Denton that his second wife, Blanche d'Alpuget, will know what to do if he ever reaches that stage.
Acting as a poster boy for euthanasia is a sad end to a distinguished career. But it is, in a way, understandable. Dementia must be terrifying for people without adequate family support because of fractured relationships. And Mr Hawke, sadly, fractured his in a very public way by divorcing his first wife Hazel, who had been his spouse when he was Prime Minister, to marry his biographer, Ms d'Alpuget.
Hazel went on to be one of the most respected and best-loved women in public life in Australia. People praised her honesty and courage when she admitted that she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. She even published a book about it. Eventually she had to enter a nursing home where she lived for four years before her death. Mr Hawke was not there to help her.
For all of his intelligence and charm, Bob Hawke is wrong about euthanasia. Dementia is a disability and a civilised society does not solve the problem of disability by killing the disabled. The real indignity comes when the "abled" neglect their responsibility to care for the weak and vulnerable.
Justin Welby and biological father Anthony Montague Browne
In events which seem copied from the script of a B-grade potboiler, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has, at the age of 60, just discovered that he is not who he thought he was. After taking a DNA test to disprove rumours that he was not his father's son, he learned that the rumours were true. His real father was the last private secretary of Wnston Churchill, Sir Anthony Montague Browne.
Despite his deep religious faith, the Archbishop seems quite shaken by the news. He surmounted a difficult childhood with alcoholic parents to become a successful oil executive and then an Anglican priest. He had no idea that the ne'er-do-well whom he regarded as his estranged father was not. In an interview with The Telegraph [London] he said:
“My own experience is typical of many people. To find that one’s father is other than imagined is fairly frequent. To be the child of families with great difficulties in relationships, with substance abuse or other matters, is far too normal.
“Although there are elements of sadness, and even tragedy in my father’s case, this is a story of redemption and hope from a place of tumultuous difficulty and near despair in several lives ... I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.”
Although this is just an anecdote, it confirms what I've always regarded as one of the most important principles in contemporary bioethics: that every child deserves to know his or her biological parents. Archbishop Welby is better prepared than most to survive a personal earthquake like this, but it is an earthquake. To know who we are, to have a secure personal identity, is an important dimension of our autonomy.